..

THE PUNISHER

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Thomas Jane, John Travolta, Will Patton, Roy Scheider, Laura Harring, Ben Foster, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Lion’s Gate
Features: See Review
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: September 7, 2004

"In certain…EXTREME situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law. To pursue…natural justice. This is not vengeance. Revenge is not a valid motive, it's an emotional response. No, not vengeance…PUNISHMENT."

Film ****

Of all the comic book characters to come around in the last thirty years, the one that has always stood out is the character of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher. In 1974, Marvel first introduced the character as a possible nemesis to Spider-Man. Pretty soon afterwards, the character was headlining his very own comic book adventures. In my younger years, I instantly became a fan, and to this day, it is my all time favorite comic book creation.

Only one thing differed from his adventures than the rest of the Marvel clan; The Punisher was more of a work of tragedy as opposed to regular heroism. Frank Castle is, and has long been the ultimate anti-hero. Even when compared to the likes of The Incredible Hulk, The Punisher is an even grimmer work of dark comic book storytelling. 

In 1989, an attempt was made to adapt the dark tale of Frank Castle to the silver screen. Dolph Lundgren had been cast in the title role. The end result was a bad idea that was thrown away by its distributor and given a direct to video premiere. For one thing, the first movie version didn't even think to acquire Frank Castle with the larger than life skull logo he bears in the comic. That alone was reason enough for me never to see the movie.

So it goes without saying that if a Punisher movie was going to be made at all, it had to be made right. Fifteen years down the road, the requirement had been met in a big way. With a skillful team of filmmakers and actors involved, The Punisher has been converted into, in my opinion, one of the downright best comic book movie adaptations ever. It may help to be a loyalist to the original comic book source, but I think just about anyone who knows of the world of Frank Castle will end up giving the film a huge dose of credit for sticking to its dark grim roots.

 

"Those who do evil to others; the murderers, rapists, psychos, sadists will come to know me well…"

And talk about perfect casting. Thomas Jane, an actor I've long admired after seeing his strong supporting roles in such films as Boogie Nights and Deep Blue Sea, got whipped into amazing physical shape and made the role of Frank Castle his own. Like Tobey Maguire did Spider-Man, Jane accomplishes pure perfection in bringing a comic book creation to life in a fully realized way. In addition, Mr. Jane does the look of The Punisher so extravagantly well. The first shot of him in the black laced getup, with the skull logo in tow is a shot that deserves to be remembered.

As for the all around execution of the film, my expectations were exceeded in a heartbeat. Serious fans of the comic book are likely to think while watching, "Gee, for once THEY GOT IT RIGHT!". The story opens with Castle, a federal agent, orchestrating an undercover bust involving an illegal weapons exchange. The op results in the unexpected killing of the buyer, who just so happens to be connected to a high-profile criminal empire. It's also Frank's last assignment, as he is retiring from the bureau and moving his family to safe haven in London.

It turns out that the young man murdered in the FBI sting is the son of reputed crime boss Howard Saint (John Travolta) who is stricken with grief and pure disgust upon hearing the news. He wants the man who killed him to be taken out. Upon learning of Castle's identity, he orders his right hand assassin, Quentin Glass (Will Patton) to strike back at Castle at his family reunion in Puerto Rico. An even harsher request is given by Howard's wife, Livia (Laura Harring), who orders them to wipe out not only Castle, but his entire family.

Then the unthinkable does happens in a vicious sequence, but quite necessary in setting up the rest of the movie. A group of armed men execute a harsh raid on Castle's family. Castle manages to take out a few of the henchmen, but is powerless in trying to save his wife and son, who are killed while attempting to flee. Frank is then cornered by the men, beaten to a pulp, shot, and then doused with gasoline and left to be blown to bits on a pier.

But Castle survives the killing. When his body is washed onto the shore, he is quickly helped by a local islander/witch doctor. As soon as he regains consciousness, Castle relocates to the city, where he hides out at a nearly rundown rooming house. He gathers together a supreme arsenal of weapons, and plots to strike at the criminal empire that tried to destroy him.

"…Frank Castle is dead…"

Castle soon captures the attention of the fellow occupants of the rooming house, most notably Joan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a lonely waitress. She is somewhat attracted to Frank, but he resists due to still being haunted by images of his wife and son, plus the fact that he is focused on extracting deadly force and nothing more. He tells her flat out that he's not what she's looking for.

As an all out action movie, The Punisher also happens to be one of the best I've seen in quite some time. This may be the pure epitome of pure hardcore action for many years to come, and let's face it, when bringing this character to the silver screen, there's simply no other way to do it. Castle's duels with Saint's hired guns are pure grabbers, including an encounter with a guitar playing assassin from Memphis and a monstrous figure named The Russian, whose hand to hand combat with Castle is easily the best and funniest fight sequences I've seen in a long time.

As Howard Saint, John Travolta demonstrates once again why he is so dependable in the role of the heavy, despite his all around likeability. He makes Saint into a memorable villain, making him as ruthless and despicable as possible. At the same time, Travolta is able to squeeze in some humor into the role, with a couple of lines that generate some serious laughs.

The pure power in the film's story is Castle's revenge plot, which isn't as dull and one dimensional as you may expect. It's carefully extracted, and has something of a noir touch to it. The elements that play into this revenge plot really have the ability to surprise you with just how clever it is. What goes down, you ask? You'll just have to watch and see, my friend.

To put it simply, The Punisher is a fan's dream come true if there ever was one. Credit writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh for constructing a movie that stayed true to the roots of the comic book, and ensuring that an R rating would be kept for the benefit of the movie. And the film couldn't have been what it is without the strength of Thomas Jane in the title role. I honestly believe that few actors in the future will be able to pull off such a similar, outstanding job.

The Punisher is both a triumph of a comic book movie and a remarkable, unrelenting action movie experience.

…call me…THE PUNISHER.."

Video ****

Lion's Gate have been on the rise over the last couple of years, in terms of producing stellar DVD presentations, and I'm pleased to report that The Punisher is the studio's strongest effort to date. The anamorphic picture quality is of the most outstanding performance in all key fields. The movie's Tampa setting and stylish noir-like look help to pay off strongly in the incredible picture quality. Images are consistently clear, even in the darkest of settings, which the movie has plenty of. A grand presentation every step of the way.

Audio ****

Upon getting the disc, I was unaware that the 5.1 mix supplied was in EX mode. That little enhancement is always a huge benefactor in the sound performance of a disc, and it certainly benefited this one immensely, so much to the point that I have now declared this disc as the best sounding of the year so far. Every single sound factor is elevated to a superb level here. The action, of course, takes center stage and it makes the most out of any good surround sound system. Music playback and dialogue are also clearly handled and well balanced, as are several set pieces which provide some strong dynamic range. In short, it's a DVD presentation for the history books!

Features ****

Lion's Gate offers one of their best loaded discs to date, as well, with a strong arsenal of extras to keep one entertained. Included is a commentary track with writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh, four intriguing featurettes; "Keeping it Real" features a look at the astounding stunt work of the movie, "War Journal: On the Set of The Punisher" is a well documented and informative production diary that covers a plenty of ground as far as making the movie is concerned, "Army of One: The Punisher Origins" is a most in-depth look at the creation of the comic book character, and "Drawing Blood: Bradstreet Style" features an interview with the cover artist of The Punisher. Also included are some deleted scenes, a music video for Drowning Pool's song, "Step Up", and a trailer for the upcoming Punisher video game.

The disc also comes with a special comic book that serves as a prequel to the movie, though this is said to be available for a limited time.

Summary:

For my money, The Punisher is without a doubt one of the downright best comic book movie adaptations to come around yet. Fans of the comic will no doubt embrace it, and action movie buffs are certain to cherish it in the same light. I've embraced it in both respects, so much to the point that it might just end up on my ten best list of this year!

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com